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Frankétienne: “Creation is an Odyssey with no Stopovers”

https://courier.unesco.org/en/articles/franketienne-creation-odyssey-no-stopovers

A poet, playwright, novelist, painter and actor, Frankétienne is a major figure in Haitian literature. The author of a prolific body of work, he writes in both Haitian Creole and French. He is one of the founders of Spiralism, a literary and aesthetic movement that seeks to express the fecundity of chaos through writing that combines verbal invention and transgression of the classical rules of narrative. Since 2010, he has been a UNESCO Artist for Peace.

29 September 2023

Last update:24 October 2023

Interview with Frankétienne, Haitian writer

Frankétienne in his Port-au-Prince home, which remained intact after the 2010 earthquake. The pillar on the right depicts a scene of the disaster, painted by him.

© Corentin Fohlen / Divergence

Interview by Agnès Bardon
UNESCO

You were born Jean-Pierre Dantor Basilic Franck Etienne d’Argent in Ravine Sèche, in Haiti’s Artibonite province. How did you become Frankétienne? 

I was born on April 12, 1936 in a Rural Section called RAVINE-SÈCHE*, where Vodou was the dominant religion at the time. My grandmother Anne Etienne and my mother Annette Etienne decided to give me a rosary of valiant names, with mystical and baroque resonance, likely to protect the little “petit blanc” against the mischief and evil spells of any sorcerers. This was easy for them to do, simply because they had no one to answer to, as my biological father, Benjamin Lyles, an American billionaire, never took responsibility for me. To avoid the malicious mockery I received from my classmates, my mother decided to consult a registrar to shorten my excessively long nominal identification. And so, at the age of seventeen, I became simply Franck Étienne. When I officially entered the field of artistic and literary creation, I became Frankétienne in one fell swoop. Much later, I discovered that ‘Frankétienne’ sounded bizarrely like ‘Frankenstein’. A peculiar mystery linked to the Spiral and the unsettling nature of my work. 

You grew up in a Creole-speaking milieu and learned French at school. As a writer, you have published works in both languages, including Dézafi, your first novel in Haitian Creole. How do you navigate between these two languages? 

Having lived for almost half a century in a Creole-speaking working-class environment close to my rural roots, I soon sensed and penetrated the essence, nuances and profound beauty of my mother tongue. Through the Larousse dictionary, classic works and narrative novels, I began learning FRENCH. And I produced my first literary works in French. I had to wait until 1975 to produce DÉZAFI, which was the first real novel in the Creole language in general, in terms of its authenticity and modernity, given that ATIPA, by the Guyanese writer Alfred Parepou, is closer to the traditional narrative. I have been able to create novels, poetry and plays in both French and Creole without difficulty, without rupture, without trauma, even though I was sometimes addressing two different audiences. There was simply a phenomenon of interaction and enrichment using these two linguistic instruments with their differences, specificities and affinities. 

In terms of its authenticity and modernity, DÉZAFI is the first real novel in the Creole language

In the course of your life, you have survived poverty and dictatorship, and overcome many hardships. Were books your salvation? 

Obviously, painting, literary production and my theatrical activities (as a playwright and actor) contributed greatly to my salvation, enabling me to overcome the many trials that disrupted my existence “on that long, untranquil river that is LIFE”.  

A communist activist until the age of 40 in the face of the ferocious DUVALIER dictatorship, I was gradually steered by the events of Haitian history and my personal experiences towards a move away from the Communist Party and Marxist ideology. Yet I didn’t become religious. I’m Christic, because of my faith in the exceptional mythology of Christ, who humbly transcended all human stupidity to gain early access to the Sublime and Pathetic Divine Nature. For me, GOD is Source Energy, bursting forth and present in the smallest particles of the INFINITE UNIVERSE. My current trajectory is dominated by a spiritual sensibility found in quarks, leptons, hadrons, quanta and all elementary particles that are psycho-matter endowed with a form of intelligence.

You’ve always chosen to live in Haiti. What does your writing owe to this tumultuous island? 

Through the enigmatic, chaotic and mysterious massif of HAITI, the Divine Intelligence of Universal Energy has given me everything, from my obscure birth to my dazzling 87th birthday. 

It was fortunate that my biological father gave nothing to my mother, the little peasant girl, nor to me, the brilliant reject, the atypical writer-artist chosen by the Light and Breath of the Absolute Spirit. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been the 60-odd books I’ve written or the five thousand paintings I’ve done in 60 years of intensive labour. This has made me an original madman who must have disturbed any number of ‘normal’ people. 

I’ll never stop thinking joyfully of the famous Aimé Césaire who, on the day he welcomed me for the first time at the town hall in Fort-de-France, exclaimed in his soft voice: “At last, I receive Mister Haiti!”  That was in 1994, some fifteen years before his death. 

Your first novel, Mûr à crever [Ready to Burst], published in 1968, laid the foundations for Spiralism. How would you describe this literary movement, founded with other Haitian writers, namely Jean-Claude Fignolé and René Philoctète? 

René Philoctète, Jean-Claude Fignolé and I laid the foundations of the literary movement called Spiralisme. And I carried on, notably by writing Mûr à crever

I invested myself totally and alone in the fabulous adventure of SPIRALISM. I’ve never bothered to plan ahead or to know where I’ll be landing. In fact, I’ve never landed anywhere. I’m here in my country and in every corner of the world. I’ve always been on the move, in search of new things. Permanent creation is an odyssey with no stopovers, which continues through multiple pitfalls (storms, tempests, tornadoes, hurricanes, torments) and all kinds of unpredictable dangers, apart from a few rare stretches of illusory happiness. 

Often, the creator crosses an immense desert where he suddenly discovers the intensity and beauty of solitude as much as the plenitude of silence, on the fringes of the clichés, stereotypes, sterile landscapes and worn, outdated, sclerotic formulas. I’ve never claimed to be a historian, chronicler, sociologist or anthropologist. However, I am pathetically aware of having produced, in an exceptional and painful context, an artistic and literary work with an inescapable innovative dimension. 

As the future unfolds, the fate of my work depends neither on me nor on anyone else. Quite simply, I’ll take responsibility for my creative madness and my sublime solitude to the end. Through the Corde et Miséricorde spiral, the ultimate literary experience of my writing career, I have felt no shame in speaking poetically of my weaknesses and my strengths, my illusions and my disappointments, my fleeting pains and joys, my celebrations and my defeats. 

The Spiral aesthetic enabled me to explore the complexity of our Universe and its mysterious energy in perpetual vibratory, gyratory and gravitational motion

I danced my tormented life on a mysterious pommel horse with my voice shaken by intense, dense cries, often in the middle of an immense desert. Courageously, I took on the Spiral aesthetic to the end, and through my eruptive, whirling writing, it enabled me to explore the complexity of our Universe and its mysterious energy in perpetual vibratory, gyratory and gravitational motion. In every field (literary, artistic, scientific), authenticity is paramount. Innovation remains a gamble, a challenge, a folly involving the leap of risk, the leap of faith. With my eyes closed, I continue to leap on a journey full of uncertainties, without questioning whether there is a mat or a cushion ready to receive me and soften my fall. I’ll jump until my last breath.

In Port-au-Prince, you founded a school and taught for many years, mathematics in particular. What did you learn from this experience? 

I’m multidimensional, having taught Haitian Literature, French Literature, Social Sciences, Physics, Mathematics and Philosophy. This has enabled me to realize that we live in a Universe of Mysterious Energy, and that all the elements of this strange UNIVERSE are permanently interconnected. The UNIVERSE is holistic, yet marked by diversity, unity, symbiosis, synergy, polyphony, infinity and, paradoxically, also by the fragile, the vulnerable and the ephemeral. Everything is linked and connected in the infinite beats of the DIVINE Mystery, elusive, indecipherable, untranslatable and unpredictable within a fertile chaotic matrix where Light and Darkness intertwine and interpenetrate for the emergence of the FUTURE in an unpredictable world. 

© Corentin Fohlen / Divergence

Frankétienne in his home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2019.

© Corentin Fohlen / Divergence

Do you see a link between mathematics and poetry? 

There are many affinities between Mathematics and Poetry, especially at the level of signs, symbols, the imaginary, the concrete, the intangible, the real and the virtual. Mathematical language and poetic language often transport us beyond the tangible and visible. Poetic metaphors are not far removed from the utopian and fabulous journeys of hypothetical and phantasmagorical signs that weave, intertwine and intermingle in the field of mathematical beings. Poetry often reveals itself as the musical magic of waves, vibrations and gravitational spirals teeming with signs, curves and numbers, impossibly fleeting in the miraculous harmony of incompatibles. 

Your play Melovivi ou Le piège, published in 2010 but written in 2009, features two characters confronted with chaos in the aftermath of an earthquake, a few months before the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010. Is a writer necessarily something of a visionary?

Not all writers are visionaries. But there are rare poet-prophets who, nourished by the Breath of the Imagination, the Sap of the Word and the Light of the Spirit, manage to glimpse, perceive and feel the palpitations and vibrations of the future world. The infinite antennae of the human soul are fed by spiritual energy, which often projects us beyond the visible. What we don’t perceive is undeniably richer, more complex and even much truer than the flat reality of visible, palpable things. 

You are a poet, playwright and novelist. Your books often combine text, drawing and collage. Are you in search of a total language? 

Certainly, total language remains the ideal spiral path that offers us the chance to discover the opulence of vital movement. Everything is spiral, global, total, capital and holistic.

Spiral aesthetics feed on total language to explore galaxies, black holes, stars, planets, supernovae, comets, asteroids, the Infinite Universe as well as infinitely small corpuscles. Creative and innovative writing is linked to total language. It’s a poetic, spiritual, metaphysical and scientific quest. 

You’re also a painter. How does painting relate to writing?  

Painting, through the interweaving and amalgamation of pigments, offers greater freedom and enjoyment than literary creation, which is trapped, managed, enslaved, asphyxiated and impoverished by too many academic, traditional, rigid and restrictive standards. In the act of painting, every gesture is significant and allows for all kinds of journeys, even the wildest. I often suffer mentally, psychologically and intellectually when I write, whereas the playful, joyful and liberal dimension is manifest, explosive, luminous and concrete in the inextinguishable fire of polyphonic and ‘chaophonic’ colours and forms.

Jim Luce
Jim Lucehttps://stewardshipreport.org/
Raising, Supporting & Educating Young Global Leaders through Orphans International Worldwide (www.orphansinternational.org), the J. Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org), and The Stewardship Report (www.stewardshipreport.org). Jim is also founder and president of the New York Global Leaders Lions Club.

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